“In the end, it's about the teaching, and what I always loved about coaching was the practices. Not the games, not the tournaments, not the alumni stuff. But teaching the players during practice was what coaching was all about to me.”
Prior to becoming a school administrator, I served as a classroom teacher for eighteen years. My very first job was teaching 1st grade; my final teaching assignment was 12th grade English. During those eighteen years, I also served as a coach; although I coached football, baseball, and golf, my true coaching passion was basketball. Although I loved serving as a classroom teacher at all levels, I must admit that near the end of my teaching career, there were many days that my basketball practices seemed to go much more smoothly and were much more productive than my English lessons. I sensed that my basketball players were learning more about basketball than my English students were learning about reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language skills. Unfortunately, when things are not going as well as we wish, it is sometimes difficult to discern exactly why when we are in the moment. However, after time passes, it often becomes much easier to look back and learn why. As I sit here today, I realize my English lessons would have been much more productive if they were a whole lot more like my basketball practices.
This is somewhat embarrassing to admit now that I know better, but at the time, my English class was more about me, than it was about my students. I did most of the talking, students either learned or did not, and, truth be told, I wasted a fair amount of time during my allotted instructional minutes. As soon as my last class of the day ended, I would quickly change clothes and head straight to the gym for practice. Suddenly, everyone was engaged. Moreover, these athletes were working harder than me and learning a great deal in the process. What made the difference? I could probably list quite a few answers, but these five really stand out to me more than 15 years later as difference makers:
- Planning: As a basketball coach, to say I was a meticulous planner would be an understatement. I only had 90 minutes of time before the next team needed the gym and I needed 120 minutes. As a result, I planned each practice from minute 1 to minute 90. We never practiced for 89 minutes; we always used all 90. It was not unusual to run certain activities for precisely 3 minutes and 21 seconds or 7 minutes and 49 seconds. I literally used every second of the 90 minutes for purposeful activities designed to help my players become better at the game of basketbal. My English classes, on the other hand, were a tad more random and it was not unusual for me to simply “wing it.” I was known to get sidetracked with stories and might even end class a bit early, allowing students to “do their homework.” I wish I had planned my English lessons as intentionally as I planned each basketball practice.
- Practice: During my 90 minute basketball practices, there was a great deal of time devoted to….practice. Kids on my teams actually practiced skills I was teaching them. There was not a single aspect of a game situation that we did not practice, from the opening tip, to the crossover dribble, to the way we sat on the bench during a timeout, to the way we wore our uniforms. We practiced everything. Meanwhile, in my English classes, there was not a lot of in-class time devoted to practicing any skills I was teaching. Although we would read regularly and there was some time devoted to actual writing, little of this was deliberate practice, designed for the students to improve as readers and writers in specific areas. I wish I had designed opportunities for students in my English classes to deliberately practice skills they needed to become better.
- Feedback: During my basketball practices, I provided loads of feedback. What’s more, it was timely and specific feedback. I might watch a player shoot a few free throws, then stop him to share specific things I noticed, suggesting he try changing one small part of his free throw routine or technique. Then, he would shoot again and I would provide additional feedback. In my classroom, I provided little in the way of useful feedback, rarely moving beyond, “Good job.” Moreover, my feedback on student writing often came days after an assignment was turned in and well after it would do the student writer any good. I wish I had focused more on providing feedback in my English classes and less on grades.
- Mini lessons: At times during basketball practices, I led direct, whole group instruction. Whenever I was introducing a new inbounds play, for instance, I would take over and explain the play, showing the team where each person should move and when. These lessons tended to be only as long as necessary in order to get the kids started practicing the play themselves, at which point, we would be back to the practice - feedback - practice loop. In my English classes, however, there were days when I spent the entire period teaching a lesson on grammar, poetry, or the research process. I wish I had started each class off with no more than a 15- or 20-minute mini lesson and then allowing students to dig in and start working on the mini lesson skills.
- Spiraling: In basketball practice, we never truly mastered any skill. When long term planning, I always made sure to schedule times to spiral back to drills related to shooting, dribbling, passing, and defense so as to continue getting better at these foundational skills. On the other hand, in my English classes, once we finished a unit on any topic, I rarely, if ever returned to those concepts. Students either got it the first time or we moved on without them getting it. I wish I had planned on circling back to big ideas in my English curriculum throughout the school year to ensure that students truly learned and retained essential content and skills.